Monday, July 02, 2012

Why would Balak attack Israel?

Summary: Especially since the Israelites were enjoined from waging war against Moav, and he could only attack them a little bit, to no avail? Rav Chaim Kanievsky answers. I suggest an answer based on the context in Midrash Tanchuma.

PostIn parashat Balak, we encounter the following Rashi:

6. So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the land, for I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed."ו. וְעַתָּה לְכָה נָּא אָרָה לִּי אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה כִּי עָצוּם הוּא מִמֶּנִּי אוּלַי אוּכַל נַכֶּה בּוֹ וַאֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִן הָאָרֶץ כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֵת אֲשֶׁר תְּבָרֵךְ מְבֹרָךְ וַאֲשֶׁר תָּאֹר יוּאָר:
Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them: Heb. נַכֶּה. I with my nation will wage war against them [hence the first person plural form of נַכֶּה]. Another interpretation: It נַכֶּה is a mishnaic term, as in,“he deducts (מְנַכֶּה) from the price for him” (B.M. 105b) [so the meaning here is,] to diminish them somewhat. — [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 4, Num. Rabbah 20:7]נכה בו: אני ועמי נכה בהם. דבר אחר לשון משנה היא (ב"מ קה ב) מנכה לו מן הדמים, לחסר מהם מעט:

Rav Chaim Kanievsky
According to the first analysis, Rashi explains the plurality of the nun, to refer to 'me and my nation'. According to the second, Rashi explains the nun in another fashion, that it is equivalent to the Mishnaic term מְנַכֶּה, to lessen.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky writes in Taama deKra, regarding the second interpretation of Rashi:

"אוּלַי אוּכַל נַכֶּה בּוֹ -- Rashi explains (and so is it in the midrash) that in the language of the Mishna מנכה לו, that is to say, to diminish them a bit. That this is that he knew that he would not be able to obliterate them, but he thought, perhaps, that he would be able to reduce them a bit.

And it is difficult, if so, what he would profit from this, for since, after all, the whole nation would remain, they would be able to wage war with him. And this is merely wickedness!

And there is to say that more than this was not necessary, for behold it is stated in the Midrash (brought down by Tosafot in Bava Kamma daf 38a) {regarding pasuk 4} עַתָּה יְלַחֲכוּ -- that they only feared the licking, for behold they [the Israelites] were commanded 'do not oppress Moav'. And so too in the Midrash: War you may not wage, but that which you are able to snatch from the outside, snatch {as in, conduct a raid}. And from this they were afraid. (And this is what is stated {in pasuk 3} כִּי רַב הוּא, and were thus able to snatch a lot.) And for this it would be sufficient that they were able to kill a small amount of them [the Israelites], for afterwards Israel would fear to snatch from them, lest they kill them."

This is certainly plausible, and works out.

Yet, before looking to distant midrashim to resolve Rashi, I would look to Rashi's direct sources. Indeed, Taama deKra noted that וכ״ה במדרש. Which midrashim served as Rashi's sources? Chabad / Judaica Press, above, gave it as: Mid. Tanchuma Balak 4, Num. Rabbah 20:7. It also appears in Yalkut Shimoni. Yet I'm fairly certain Bamidbar Rabba does not serve as a source for Rashi (perhaps being too late), nor does Yalkut Shimoni. We should examine Midrash Tanchuma:

אולי אוכל נכה בו כמי שמנכה אחד מעשרים וארבעה למאה, וכך נפלו ארבעה ועשרים אלף מישראל חסר אחד.  
"Just like someone who reduces 1/24th of a seah*, and so did 24,000 - 1 Israelites fall."

{* emended in accordance with Midrash Rabba and Yalkut Shimoni.}

This is a reference to what happened later in Shittim, when a plague punished the Israelites for sinning with the daughters of Moav:

ט  וַיִּהְיוּ, הַמֵּתִים בַּמַּגֵּפָה--אַרְבָּעָה וְעֶשְׂרִים, אָלֶף.  {פ}9 And those that died by the plague were twenty and four thousand. {P}

If we examine the context of this Midrash Tanchuma, we see above:

ועתה לכה נא ארה לימהו ארה לי? 
אמר: אולי יכול אני לשלוט בהם קמעא קמעא, כאדם שהוא אורה את התאנה. 

"So now, please come and curse [ארה]... for me" -- what is meant by אָרָה לִּי? He said: Perhaps I will be able to prevail over them bit by bit, like a person who plucks [oreh] a fig."

This removes the question at its very source. What did Balak hope to gain? He hope to continually pick them off, 24000 at a time.

In terms of motivation, given that the Israelites were not allowed to oppress Moav, the very same Midrash Tanchuma directly asks, and answers this question! 

אולי אוכל נכה בומה ראה זה להתגרות. לא כך אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא להם שאין נוטלין מארצם?! 
אלא שהיה בעל קסמים ונחשים יותר מבלעם, שכך כתיב: וירא בלק, אלא שלא היה מכוון הדברים לאמיתן. 

וכן הוא אומר: נלאית ברוב עצתיך יעמדו נא ויושיעך הברי שמים החוזים בכוכבים מודיעים לחדשים מאשר יבאו עליך, הנה היו כקש אש שרפתם לא יצילו את נפשם מיד להבה (ישע' מז יג-יד). 
והיה רואה בדברים שישראל נופלים בידו. לפיכך הפקיר את בתו ונפלו בה ארבעה ועשרים אלף, לכך נתגרה בהם ולא היה יודע היאך. 

"Why did Balak see fit to stir up, given that Hashem told them not to take from their land? Rather, he was a more skilled sorcerer and diviner than Bilam, for so is written, 'and Balak saw'. But he did not fully understand the truth of the matter... and he saw that Israel would fall in his hands... and he did not know how."

Or alternatively, also from the surrounding area of this Midrash Tanchuma, his motivation was this:

ואגרשנו מן הארץשלא היה מבקש לגרשם אלא שלא יכנסו לארץ.

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